2023 D-I College Championships: UMass Break Runs Sink SLO (Semifinal Recap)

Fearless play from Zoodisc overwhelmed SLO early.

Massachusetts’ Jonah Stang-Osborne skies Cal Poly-SLO for a goal in the 2023 D-I College Championships semifinal. Photo: Sam Hotaling – UltiPhotos.com

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Massachusetts Zoodisc secured a place in the College Championships final after a thundering 15-10 semifinal win over Cal Poly-SLO Slocore. Luca Harwood and Wyatt Kellman each tallied five assists to pace the team. Otherwise, the counting stats were distributed liberally – fitting for a team that played through the whole roster.

“We can run out line after line after line… and, because of that, we don’t really get tired. We just keep going and going and going. And when other teams slow down, we just keep going at the same pace,” said Kellman.

“As a D-line guy who has to run and run and run, I got to rest so much during this [semifinal] and the Texas game,” said Jonah Stang-Osborne. “It’s a stark difference from every other team I’ve played on.” Throughout the tournament, Zoodisc was able to manage the physical load of so many high intensity points through wide distribution, leaving their players free to empty the tank on the field without needing to worry about saving too much for the next point.

Offensive points also frequently ended in only a few throws – courtesy of the cannon-armed Harwood. “I gotta shout out my boy Luca Harwood,” said Kellman. “I think he threw five or six hucks that were just perfect. I’ve never seen that before.” Harwood set to work on the first drive of the game, catching a swing pass before unloading a flick huck that somehow both sped quickly out of reach for the defender and sat in space for Gavin Abrahamsson. He would hit on a similar shot to Noel Sierra for Zoodisc’s second hold – two or three other times later in the game, too.

It was a level of hucking power SLO were not prepared to defend. While plenty of other players in the division can throw consistent deep shots, they tend to save them for cuts that develop from at least the middle of the stack, giving ample time for the receiver to beat the defense at an all-out sprint. Once the receiver gets deep enough, then, it’s usually the case that the cut is no longer a viable option because there won’t be enough room to get separation – and the deep defenders can orbit underneath to stop the next under cut. SLO set up their deep defense according to that usually reliable textbook but found out the hard way that Harwood was playing a different game. The pace with which his throws chew up the first thirty or forty yards frequently meant that any deep defender setting up underneath the last cutter was out of position.

Meanwhile, the Slocore offense looked far from comfortable early in the game. A tight second offensive point ended in an earth-shattering sky from Stang-Osborne to register the game’s first break.

Jonah Stang-Osborne Sky

Whether they were rattled by the force of that play, somewhat cowed by the stage, or simply having trouble replicating the kind of assertive offense that brought them to semis in the first place, SLO let the first break slide into two more. Zoodisc’s Charlie Leightheiser picked off a pass into the seemingly free middle of the UMass zone on the next point to set up a fine curling forehand from Jae Lee. After that, a quick-trigger Kellman bid was disruptive enough to break a receiver’s concentration, giving Stang-Osborne, Toby Paperno, and Aidan O’Neill a short field. After a tidy red zone set, UMass held a commanding 5-1 lead.

With only brief exceptions, SLO had played well ahead of their opponents throughout the weekend. It was a new headspace for them to feel well and truly behind at 2023 Nationals – and to need to mount a comeback in a high-pressure situation instead of striding out a lead. “[UMass] obviously came out hot and were running hard,” said SLO senior Seamus Robinson. “They put us in a position that we hadn’t been in all weekend. It was a little weird to be in that position and have to respond. We were trying to find our energy.”

Where were Zoodisc’s first-year jitters? It would be easy to mistake them for a perennial semis team – and not the group of players who have never been on a stage of this kind in this sport – the way they handled the pressure in the stadium, which is a very different environment than the fields they had played on for the previous five games of their tournament. They were cool, comfortable, self-possessed, and even downright happy throughout the game. As it turns out, however, they are not entirely strangers with in-stadium play.

“We’re fortunate enough to practice in a stadium every week. So, to us, we were just going to practice,” said Kellman.

Yes, Zoodisc were comfortable. But they weren’t out of the woods by any means. After a beautiful 40-yard airbounce by Calvin Brown – I pause here to note how personally glad I am that we were treated to one last season of his on-field excellence – to Alex Nelson to end the skid before the game got completely out of hand, SLO wrested back one of the three breaks. The defense coaxed throwing errors out of Carter Hawkins and Kellman on successive possessions, and the second time around Kyle Lew got off a long shot to Seamus Robinson before Zoodisc’s O-line could get their defensive wits about them.

Another pair of UMass turns on the next point almost brought SLO back within real striking distance. But two tremendous defensive plays – one from Sierra to break up what could have been a sure two-yard pass for a goal, the second a brilliant layout by Griffin Yas to stifle a SLO counter – ensure Zoodisc would keep SLO at arm’s length a little longer.

SLO played with the necessary aplomb to keep the game close for the next several points, both leading into and coming out of the half. Carson Crouch’s step-back forehand breaks were enormously effective against the Zoodisc backhand force schemes. Meanwhile, SLO’s standout sophomore cutters Nelson (4G, 1A) and Anton Orme (1G, 3A) were having a field day.

“[Orme and Nelson] are super-good players,” said Robinson. “For them to come out and play in front of the big lights is super-cool. [Nelson] can jump the highest out of anyone I’ve ever met, which is scary to play defense against at practice. And [Orme] is a super-smart, super-reliable cutter.” With two or three more years in the program on tap for both of them, the Slocore future is in excellent hands.

The game was close for a while – and then it was closer. Trailing 11-9 after a long series of solid offensive points from both sides, SLO finally got another look at a break when Sierra tossed a soft under to a space that had been occupied by Lyle Berkley only moments prior. The miscommunication set up another Brown long ball that Zach Wiley tracked down in the back of the endzone. The deficit having closed to just a single goal, it looked like SLO might be able to come all the way back from their early hole.

Not this year. Not against the immovable wall that is 2023 Zoodisc. The break to bring the score to 11-10 would be SLO’s last point of the game. Harwood ensured the one break would not have a chance to multiply by sending another scorching deep huck on the next point. SLO’s throwers tried to match him on each of their next three possessions, but none of their deep shots were on target – including a pair that flew well out of bounds.

The final possession saw a hard Stang-Osborne clear from the backfield of the red zone set buttonhook into a long horizontal cut across the back of the box: Paperno saw the whole sequence develop and delivered a strike to space near the back cone to put the final rivet in a beautifully engineered full-team victory.

  1. Edward Stephens
    Edward Stephens

    Edward Stephens has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. He writes and plays ultimate in Athens, Georgia.

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